“Halfway down the street I rented a large house with space for offices, individual classrooms, and one large lecture hall … Since its opening, more than twenty thousand people have come to the Mandiram … mora than twenty thousand entirely different situations – but each asks, in one form or another, “Can you help me?” And all we can answer, the only absolute guarantee each teacher can make is: “I can care.”
That this answer leaves many intellectually unsatisfied, especially those who would like detailed cause-and-effect explanations, I can well understand. I am sorry about that. I can wish it were otherwise, but in truth I doubt there will ever be a thoroughly satisfactory explanation of how Yoga works in any scientific, mechanistic sense.
.. I don’t wish to suggest that we may not in the future understand far more about how Yoga works. It’s just that the scientific methods haven’t yet revealed much. European scientists in the 1930s verified that my father could stop his breath and heartbeat for several minutes – but not how he did it.”
A few days ago I was trying to illustrate in conversation why I have a resistance towards any religious expression in MY world. While I do believe that religion had a constructive role in social evolution … and maybe it still does in some contexts … I do feel that in some parts of the world we have evolved to the point that religion is, by definition, dysfunctional.
“I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect … Truth being limiteless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organied; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you understand that, then you will understand how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is a purely personal matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountaintop to the valley. If you would attain to the mountaintop you must pass the valley, climb the steps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices. You must climb upwards to truth … I maintain that no organization can lead man to spirituality … The moment you follow someone you cease to follow truth … I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free.“
“The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.
… Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.
… computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.
Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?
… in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.
The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.
By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.
… Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software.
… The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences.
… But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.
… Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions.
… Fortunately, because the IP metaphor is not even slightly valid we will … never achieve immortality through downloading. This is not only because of the absence of consciousness software in the brain; there is a deeper problem here – let’s call it the uniqueness problem – which is both inspirational and depressing.
… there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience … Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences.
… This is inspirational, I suppose, because it means that each of us is truly unique, not just in our genetic makeup, but even in the way our brains change over time. It is also depressing, because it makes the task of the neuroscientist daunting almost beyond imagination.
… This is perhaps the most egregious way in which the IP metaphor has distorted our thinking about human functioning. Whereas computers do store exact copies of data – copies that can persist unchanged for long periods of time, even if the power has been turned off – the brain maintains our intellect only as long as it remains alive.
… Meanwhile, vast sums of money are being raised for brain research, based in some cases on faulty ideas and promises that cannot be kept … the $1.3 billion Human Brain Project launched by the European Union in 2013. Convinced by the charismatic Henry Markram that he could create a simulation of the entire human brain on a supercomputer by the year 2023, and that such a model would revolutionise the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders, EU officials funded his project with virtually no restrictions. Less than two years into it, the project turned into a ‘brain wreck’, and Markram was asked to step down.
… We are organisms, not computers. Get over it.”
As part of my followup inquiry into Alexander’s work (after completing a reading of his work The Nature of Order) I came across this transcript of a debate between him and a supposedly (now) famous architect Peter Eisenman. I was looking forward to reading but was quickly disappointed because I could hardly follow Eisenman’s words – he felt theoretical, abstract, alienating and trapped in a quasi-intellectual world of his own. I did very much enjoy Alexander’s responses which basically called him out for using a lot words to say very little.
For me the essence of this debate is summed up in these (selected and highlighted by me) words:
ALEXANDER: Of course, harmony is a product not only of yourself, but of the surroundings. In other words, what is harmonious in one place will not be in another. So, it is very, very much a question of what application creates harmony in that place. It is a simple objective matter. At least my experience tells me, that when a group of different people set out to try and find out what is harmonious, what feels most comfortable in such and such a situation, their opinions about it will tend to converge, if they are mocking up full-scale, real stuff. Of course, if they’re making sketches or throwing out ideas, they won’t agree. But if you start making the real thing, one tends to reach agreement. My only concern is to produce that kind of harmony. The things that I was talking about last night — I was doing empirical observation about — as a matter of fact, it turns out that these certain structures need to be in there to produce that harmony.
The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building — if I understood you correctly — is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.
EISENMAN: That is correct.
ALEXANDER: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.
EISENMAN: I would like to suggest that if I were not here agitating nobody would know what Chris’s idea of harmony is, and you all would not realize how much you agree with him … Walter Benjamin talks about “the destructive character”, which, he says, is reliability itself, because it is always constant. If you repress the destructive nature, it is going to come out in some way. If you are only searching for harmony, the disharmonies and incongruencies which define harmony and make it understandable will never be seen. A world of total harmony is no harmony at all. Because I exist, you can go along and understand your need for harmony, but do not say that I am being irresponsible or make a moral judgement that I am screwing up the world, because I would not want to have to defend myself as a moral imperative for you.
ALEXANDER: Good God!
EISENMAN: I think you should just feel this harmony is something that the majority of the people need and want. But equally there must be people out there like myself who feel the need for incongruity, disharmony, etc.
ALEXANDER: If you were an unimportant person, I would feel quite comfortable letting you go your own way. But the fact is that people who believe as you do are really fucking up the whole profession of architecture right now by propagating these beliefs. Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I feel very, very strongly about this. It’s all very well to say: “Look, harmony here, disharmony there, harmony here — it’s all fine”. But the fact is that we as architects are entrusted with the creation of that harmony in the world. And if a group of very powerful people, yourself and others …
… then I inquired some more into Peter Eisenman and his work and on his Wikipedia page found this:
His focus on “liberating” architectural form was notable from an academic and theoretical standpoint but resulted in structures that were both badly built and hostile to users. The Wexner Center, hotly anticipated as the first major public deconstructivist building, has required extensive and expensive retrofitting because of elementary design flaws (such as incompetent material specifications, and fine art exhibition space exposed to direct sunlight). It was frequently repeated that the Wexner’s colliding planes tended to make its users disoriented to the point of physical nausea; in 1997 researcher Michael Pollan tracked the source of this rumor back to Eisenman himself. In the words of Andrew Ballantyne, “By some scale of values he was actually enhancing the reputation of his building by letting it be known that it was hostile to humanity.”
As I write these words Eisenman seems to be an architecture celebrity while the work of Alexander seems to have been marginalized. The part of me that still resonates with celebrity rebels at this, but the more substantial part of me that recognizes that substantial change in society comes from its marginal proponents is comforted.
I have been thinking a lot about software as I’ve been reading Alexander’s work for the last year and I don’t know if the future will hold an opportunity for me to apply any of these ideas. So … it was sweet to discover that Ryan Singer made a connection between Alexander’s work and user experience design. His talk frames software design as a reactive process to external forces (which represent activities of the world which software is supposed to support).
I feel it is a subtle and yet substantial reframing of the typical “requirements” modality which was dominant in software when I was involved in it. However I feel that Alexander’s process thinking has much more potential to affect how software is created … and that is not a part of this talk. Still, a good presentation and a pleasant presenter: